Opinion: Felon voting rights roulette upheld by Tennessee Supreme Court

Contributed Photo / Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, right, signs a copy of her book on getting her voting rights restored for Lisa Lemza.

We suppose it's no different from states setting their own policies on education, abortion, infrastructure and how economic activity takes place, but we have some sympathy for the former Virginia man whose clemency in that state wasn't enough to be able to register and vote in Tennessee.

So said a decision handed down last week by the Tennessee Supreme Court, citing a state statute that the man in question, Ernest Falls, along with his having his citizenship rights restored, had to prove he didn't owe any outstanding court costs, restitution or child support. The decision acknowledged that there was no evidence that he owed such monies but that he had no required proof.

Our hope would have been that once someone goes through the process of having their voting rights restored — ask Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod how difficult it is — that they be allowed to vote, no matter where they move in the United States.

However, that rubs up against the country's 18th-century adoption of federalism, which designated certain powers to the federal government and most of the remaining powers to the individual states.

Falls, whose inability to vote in the 2020 election spurred his suit against Tennessee, has had three years to gather all of the proper documents from his life in Virginia to prove he does not owe anything, or if he does, to have paid it off. We hope he has done so.

The Freedom to Vote Act, a left-wing bill introduced in 2021 that federalizes much of the election process and not one that this page could ever support, does have a tenet in it about former incarcerated voters.

It would fully restore the right to vote in federal elections of all voters with felony convictions upon completion of any term of incarceration associated with their felony conviction. In other words, it would nullify the Tennessee statute that kept Falls from voting.

The bill passed the Democrat-led U.S. House but could not get floor discussion in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate in 2021. The House is now in Republican hands and is not likely to pass a bill the GOP believes is odious, even if it has individual passages some members might be able to support.

In Tennessee, we don't believe the Republican supermajority is likely to repeal a state statute that requires voters who have completed their sentences and had their rights restored to also furnish proof they have paid all of their court costs, restitution or child support.

Though people have debated the efficacy of court costs on someone who is being imprisoned and will not have a job, the payment of restitution can help make a victim whole and the payment of child support may be the difference between a child just existing or both existing and thriving.

In Falls' story, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Virginia in 1986 and completed his sentence a year later. He moved to Tennessee in 2018, and he was granted clemency by then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020. When he tried to vote in June 2020, his county official denied him, saying the proof of his payments must be available.

As we mentioned above, the powers designated to the states allows them to determine how the restoration of rights for those who have been incarcerated will proceed.

In two states and the District of Columbia, their rights are never lost, even when they're incarcerated. In 23 states, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated. Upon release, the rights are automatically restored. In 14 states, felons lose their rights while incarcerated and then while on parole or probation. Then they are restored (in some cases after paying outstanding fines, fees or restitution).

And in 11 states, including Tennessee, additional actions are required after the incarcerated complete their sentence, then probation or parole, before voting rights can be restored.

Lower courts backed the election officials over Falls in his case, and the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the matter last fall. In the end, the justices in a 3-1 vote said both state statutes — one requiring having rights restored and one requiring proof of payment of court, restitution or child support costs — applied to Falls.

"Instead," a news release about the opinion written by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivens said, "the Court held that the grant of clemency created the possibility that Mr. Falls could regain the right to vote but that he would still be subjected to other requirements imposed by the legislature."

In dissent, Justice Sharon Lee believed Virginia's granting of clemency was all Falls needed, that proof of the payments didn't matter because of the clemency.

We don't know how much help, if any, the plaintiff sought before attempting to vote. However, we would encourage all those who have served their time to seek to restore their rights and to seek help from the many organizations willing to lend a hand. A bit of advice ahead of time might have saved Falls years of litigation, even if it couldn't square up the voting rights of former felons in one state with those in another.